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A Fairy-Tale Touch on St. Maarten

September 27, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten — Hansel and Gretel could find a gingerbread house without a wicked witch on this Caribbean island, and that would be only the beginning of their discoveries.

Not even the Brothers Grimm could have conceived a fairy tale in which two nations in this troubled world of the late 20th Century would have lived without border formalities for more than 300 years.

When veterans are honored in the United States on Nov. 11, the day will be St. Maarten's and Concordia Day here on an island that measures only 37 square miles and is divided so amicably between the Netherlands and France. Festivities at the border will celebrate the agreement negotiated between Dutch and French settlers in 1648.

The spirit engendered by this harmony is more important than the beaches, resorts, duty-free shopping and, yes, even the gingerbread houses.

Increase in Passengers

For the first six months of 1987, cruise passengers arriving here at the island's main port reflected a 17% increase over the same period in 1986, which was a record year with 313,893 arrivals. Visitors arriving by air this year have been reflecting an 11% increase over the record 439,462 arrivals in 1986.

My wife and I recently returned to Sint Maarten/Saint Martin for the first time in several years.

The tourist office near the pier has all the information a visitor needs for a self-guided or guided tour.

The Courthouse, now the post office, was built in 1793 and rebuilt 32 years later. It has retained the mood of old Philipsburg. Front Street is the main shopping street and one of the two main streets of this capital city for the 25,000 who live on the Dutch side of the island. The parallel street behind it is, of course, named Back Street. The narrow alleyways linking them are called steegies, pronounced "stake-yas" in Dutch.

If your first visit here is by cruise ship, save the duty-free shops of Front Street until the end of the day or you may never get beyond them. If Hansel and Gretel could return in another fairy tale to St. Maarten, they would find themselves on the trail of West Indian gingerbread, on both the Dutch and French sides of the border.

Gingerbread Houses

Tucked away in the streets an steegies of Philipsburg are fanciful gingerbread houses with designs of many patterns carved into their porches, eaves and balconies, adding a charm even to weathered old houses in need of repainting.

The lacy carvings often form patterns that could remind the fairy-tale children of the witch's house built of bread and decorated with cakes. But instead of hiding a wicked witch waiting for them to nibble, this West Indian gingerbread in many cases has been converted into shops, boutiques and restaurants.

Philipsburg is on a narrow strip of land between Great Bay and the Salt Pond, a source of wealth for early settlers who shipped great quantities of salt to Europe.

The French capital of Marigot is scarcely a 20-minutes drive from Philipsburg, along the short coast of Simpson Bay Lagoon. The long loop around the lagoon leads to Juliana Airport and some of the grand resorts and beaches of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

The border crossing wouldn't be noticed if you didn't see the monument built in 1948 to memorialize

300 years of peaceful coexistence. There is no customs or immigration station, or any other visible frontier.

On Nov. 11, the annually renewed pledge of friendship begins an island festival of sports and musical events. Islanders have suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union hold a summit conference here in a gingerbread house, perhaps with a sipping of guavaberry liqueur, the island liqueur produced in private homes for at least 200 years.

There is a story that when a Dutchman and a Frenchman were designated to decide on the island's border, the Dutchman sipped a bit too jovially and fell into a slumber. As a result, the French have about 21 square miles compared to some 16 for the Dutch, but nobody really cares.

Before Columbus

The Arawaks and Caribs had been here for centuries before Columbus discovered the New World. Whether or not he set foot on this island, he is believed to have sighted and named it on or about St. Martin of Tours Day, Nov. 11, 1493. Pirates did base here, and the island was in the ebb and flow of the Spanish, Dutch, French and British empires.

When the Spanish fleet sailed away, it is said to have left behind nine foreign seamen, four French and five Dutch who worked out the agreement to divide this island. History does agree that a conference of nine settlers signed the agreement on March 24, 1648, at Mont des Accords, Agreement Mountain. It is believed to be the oldest agreement between two nations still being observed. The French population today is about 18,000.

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